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Remote control apps explained

Apps that turn the iPhone, iPad and the iPod touch into a universal remote for your home-entertainment gear have been around for a while now. Older apps received little professional attention, and when they did, the reviews often found them to be less than satisfactory. That's changed in 2011, thanks to new products that rethink typical remote control app design.

Since most smartphones and tablets lack an IR emitter (tablets from Vizio and Sony being the most prominent exceptions), apps that act as universal remotes need additional hardware to allow mobile devices to communicate with home theater devices. Part of the reason older versions were so maligned was because they used IR blasters that slid directly into smartphones or tablets, making the mobile devices much bulkier than normal. Newer remote control apps eschew that design and instead require users to place a separate IR emitter disk or box in range of the home theater you wish to control. The mobile app communicates with the IR emitter and the IR emitter then sends an IR control signal to your TV, Blu-ray player or home receiver.

Although many remote control apps include channel-listing search capabilities for an additional level of functionality, even the best don't rate quite as well as the best physical universal remotes, often due to limited functionality with certain services (such as a DVR) or interface quirks. Another common complaint is the touch-based nature of using a tablet or smartphone as a universal remote. "The problem with the iPad and other touch devices is that there's no tactile feedback," Matthew Moskovciak writes in his CNET review of the Logitech Harmony Link. "You need to look at the display to know what button you're pressing; what ends up happening is that you find yourself constantly looking back and forth between the iPad and the TV. It gets tiresome quickly."

But if you've already got an Android or Apple mobile device lying around and want to try to eliminate physical remotes entirely -- rather than reducing them down to a single universal remote -- critics say these remote control apps could be solid options, especially if you don't use a DVR.

Remote-control apps

The Logitech Harmony Link (*Est. $100) controls up to eight different devices and wins more accolades than any other remote control app. The IR emitter is a sleek black disk that connects to your smartphone or tablet via your home's Wi-Fi network; the free Logitech Harmony Link app is available for Android smartphones and the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, though most reviewers only cover the iPad version, which offers the most functionality.

Reviewers call the simple web-based setup a highlight of the product, but it does require users to connect the IR emitter to a PC with a USB cable as well as know the model numbers of their home theater gear. During setup, users can program simple macros. "For example, if we selected 'Watch TV,' the Link turned on the TV, cable box, and receiver, and activated the proper inputs," Michael Prospero, who gives the Harmony Link an Editors' Choice award, writes at Laptop magazine. Then, you start up the mobile app, connect it to the profile you just created for your home theater, and enter the name of your cable or satellite provider to input channel listings. Though it sounds like a lot of steps, critics say the process is fairly painless.

Once set up, the iPad version of the app offers a basic channel-by-channel program guide and a search box, while the top half of the screen is dedicated to displaying the details of the show being played and offering show filtering/sorting options. The right side of the screen features a slide-out virtual remote that contains video control (forward, pause, etc.), device options and a host of other commands, including a numeric keypad. Overall, critics like the layout of the app.

There are some stumbling points. Channel listings lack show descriptions and only display programs airing in the next 24 hours, which CNET's Matthew Moskovciak calls "a frustrating limitation for those used to DVR-based TV viewing." There is no in-app option to schedule a recording, although you can switch to controlling your DVR directly and program recordings that way. Non-iPad versions don't even get a channel listing. Additionally, the search box only scans shows airing currently, and only their titles. "When we wanted to find out when the Yankees were playing in game five of the ALDS, a search for "Yankees" didn't turn up anything," Prospero writes.

Users are less impressed. The Harmony Link rates poorly at Amazon.com, garnering a rating of 2.6 stars out of 5 with nearly 50 owners checking in; in fact, the majority gives the Harmony Link a 1-star rating. Among the chief complaints is that the virtual remote lacks many of the button options needed to run advanced cable and DVR services, which makes it impossible for them to eliminate their physical remotes entirely. Continuing along those lines, it irks users that they can't create custom buttons to fill those needs. "The Link really has the feel of a beta release," one disappointed user writes, in a nicer commentary than many others leave.

Another remote control app that garners decent press is the Griffin Beacon (*Est. $50) , which is reviewed by Laptop Magazine, TechRadar.com and Gizmodo.com. All three love the sleek, compact look of the IR emitter, a small box that connects to the Dijit app on your iOS or Android device via Bluetooth, rather than the Harmony Link's Wi-Fi connection. The Griffin Beacon controls up to eight separate devices.

Critics say the Griffin Beacon is easy to set up -- as long as all of your devices are among the 200,000 supported. "Setting up a custom remote takes thousands of years," Casey Chan writes at Gizmodo.com. Experts appreciate that the Dijit app includes sortable channel listings for your provider, a good Netflix interface, and the ability to see shows that your friends have "Liked" if you link the app with your Facebook account. A couple of niggling interface quirks bug reviewers, however; rather than displaying images of TV shows and movies, Dijit shows a bland, generic icon instead. Also, "You can't Favorite movies or teams, so you can't have all upcoming Yankees games appear in My Shows," Michael Prospero writes at Laptop Magazine. The lack of an iPad-optimized app also lowers review scores.

Despite those gripes, critics say that, overall, the Griffin Beacon is a decent remote control. "The Beacon does what it promises to do and then gets the hell out of your way so you can focus on what you want to do: burn time and watch the boob tube," Gizmodo.com's Chan opines.

The Peel Universal Remote (*Est. $100) and its pear-shaped "Fruit" emitter don't rate quite as well with critics as the Logitech Harmony Link or the Griffin Beacon, but it has a notable feature that differentiates it from the others: it learns which types of shows you like and makes suggestions based on your viewing history. Laptop Magazine's Michael Prospero says that it works very well over time, as you Favorite or Cut shows more. The setup is also simple and allows for multi-room control, although you'll need to position components carefully. The Fruit needs to be within 15 ft. of your home theater to work, and within 50 ft. -- or 25 ft. ideally -- of the "Peel Cable" that you need to plug into your home's wireless router.

There are a few worms in this "fruit," however; the Peel is only available for the iPod touch, iPhones and Android phones – no tablet support here. More crucially, all of the reviewers say that the app has big issues accessing Netflix or controlling DVRs due to its simplistic virtual remote, which lacks many of the buttons needed to replace advanced remotes. "On devices like a Blu-ray player or your DVR, having only the on-screen, five-way navigation just isn't enough; you'll want and need the specialized buttons on your dedicated device remotes," David Pierce writes at PCMag.com, while CNET's David Carnoy calls the lack of a "Guide" button for his FiOS DVR "a rather crucial omission."

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